Sherman White: A Life Well Spent After Rocky Stretch
By the end of the 1949-50 college basketball season it was apparent that Sherman White, a junior at Long Island University, was destined for greatness.
The 6-foot-8 agile, high scoring forward was surely going to become the first professional basketball player to earn $50,000 a year and maybe even $100,000.
As his 1950-51 senior season unfolded, White’s star sparkled even brighter. He was leading the nation’s college players in scoring, averaging more than 27 points per game by mid-February. The New York Knicks were licking their chops because they had territorial draft rights to White. The Knicks thought they were soon to have the player who would counter George Mikan and his Minneapolis Lakers, the first champions of the National Basketball Association that began operations in the 1949-50 season.
Mikan was then the highest paid player in pro basketball, earning $22,000 a year.
But along came Junius Kellogg, a 6-foot-10 collegian who was another excellent big, fast and strong basketball player. As an Army veteran attending Manhattan College on the GI Bill, Kellogg was a bit older, more mature and tougher than some susceptible teenage college athletes. He certainly was not amenable to bribery.
In the fall of 1950 Kellogg reported to his coach, Ken Norton, that some gamblers offered him and other Manhattan College players bribes of hundreds of dollars to fix some Manhattan College games by shaving points below the betting spread when the Jaspers were favored to win.
Coach Norton reported this to the Manhattan College president, Brother Bonaventure Thomas, who directed Kellogg to talk to the police and Manhattan District Attorney Frank Hogan.
This set in motion the stunning events that exposed the 1951 college basketball fixing scandal involving seven colleges around the nation. Authorities arrested 32 former and active college players.
Four of these former players, two from LIU and two from Manhattan College, plus 11 other gamblers/fixers were charged with bribing one or more of the 28 other players to fix the outcome of certain games.
The first big shock of this scandal came just over 60 ½ years ago when, on Jan. 17, 1951, the two former Manhattan College players, Henry Poppe and Jack Byrnes, were arrested along with three other fixers who were known bookmakers and felons. All five were charged with bribery and conspiracy.
Poppe was the person who tried unsuccessfully to get Kellogg to shave points with an offer to his former teammate of a $1,000 bribe to begin with. Instead, Kellogg became the hero whistle blower in this whole sordid affair.
Then on Feb. 18, 1951, three City College players — Ed Warner, Ed Roman and Al Roth — were arrested on charges of bribery. Eventually, four other CCNY players were arrested.
This was only 11 months after those seven athletes helped CCNY become the only team in history to win both the National Invitation Tournament and the National Collegiate Athletic Association titles in the same season by pulling off the big double in March 1950 at Madison Square Garden.
Two days later, on Feb. 20, 1951, Sherman White’s grandiose future collapsed to nothing when he was also arrested with two of his Long Island University teammates, LeRoy Smith and Adolph Boggs. They were charged with accepting money to throw games. Just a day before his arrest, White had been named “college basketball player of the year” by The Sporting News.
Of the 28 players arrested for accepting bribes to fix games, Sherman White and Ed Warner were the only ones to serve time in prison, as four were acquitted, four had the charges dropped, and 18 received suspended sentences. The four other institutions involved when some of their players were arrested were the universities of Toledo and Kentucky, New York University and Bradley.
Sherman White, who served nine months of a one-year sentence on Rikers Island, died Aug. 4 at his New Jersey home. He was 82. Years after his arrest, White admitted that he probably went to jail because when Hogan interrogated him he reacted arrogantly and was quite stubborn before finally admitting to the crime. White said Hogan did not appreciate that attitude.
All of the arrested basketball players were barred from the NBA. Dick McGuire, a Hall of Fame guard with the Knicks, 1949-1957, told the Record of New Jersey in 1999, “Sherman would have put us over the top. We would have won championships with him.”
Instead, White’s basketball career after jail consisted of playing in the semipro Eastern League. He then put his attention to coaching and assisting young people struggling through the life of inner cities. For years, White mentored teenagers and younger boys and girls at a community center in Orange, N.J.
Although he was born in Philadelphia, he grew up in Englewood, N.J., starring for the Dwight Morrow High School team in the mid-1940s. Last year the town of Englewood named the basketball courts in its Mackay Park the Sherman White courts.
In a rare interview in 1998, White told Dave Anderson, a Pulitzer Prize-winning sports columnist for The New York Times, that some of the blame for the basketball fixing scandal belonged with coaches and college authorities in addition to the players.
“They’re still blaming the ballplayers entirely,” White said. Then, after accepting responsibility for his wrong actions, White told Anderson, “There were a lot of people involved besides the ballplayers. Nobody has addressed what was the coach’s responsibility, what was the school’s responsibility, what was the venue we played in’s responsibility.”
Then White got specific by naming names when he said, “Much as I respect Clair Bee (White’s coach at LIU), you tell me that he didn’t know the difference between a guy controlling the game and not controlling the game. You tell me Nat Holman (the CCNY coach in 1950) would not know whether these guys were playing up to par or not playing up to par.”
Both Bee and Holman are in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.
Long before that interview, White was apparently forgiven by many in the basketball community when, in 1984, Madison Square Garden celebrated the 50th anniversary of the first college basketball games in the famous arena. He was honored as one of the 13 best college players to compete during that first half-century of basketball in the Garden. White was introduced to the MSG fans that evening as “the virtuoso of New York basketball.”
He was once again among the elite in MSG because the other dozen players honored as the best who played in MSG during their college days were Kareem Abdul Jabbar, Bill Russell, George Mikan, Hank Luisetti, Bill Bradley, Maurice Stokes, Elgin Baylor, Oscar Robertson, Jerry West, Tom Gola, Dick McGuire and Bob Davies. Mikan, Luisetti, Stokes, Gola and McGuire are also deceased.
Sherman White and most of those other basketball players caught up in the 1951 fixing scandal were victims more than criminals. White grew up in a poor family and was a soft target for those who had hundreds of dollars with which to induce fixing.
I remember him as one of the smoothest moving big men I ever saw put a ball through a hoop. That’s what I hope to remember most of all about Sherman White.
Gordon White served 43 years as a sports reporter for The New York Times. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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